I started reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace today. I bought the book a few months ago after having seen it mentioned a few times in random articles and having heard Stephen King recommend it.
Now, I’ve never read anything by Stephen King. By chance, I had come across some interview he’d given where he mentioned the book, and knowing that he is a popular author and having liked what he was saying at the time (I don’t remember what it was about), I momentarily – and superficially – valued his opinion. I bought the book.
Situations like that are how I’ve come to read a lot of what I’ve read. A conversation with a stranger, a caught reference during a television show, an arbitrary blog post said to be inspired by a certain work, a reputation for being a classic, etc. Some influences are more substantial than others, but at the end of the day there’s a good deal of “people-think-this-is-good-so-I-should-to” that drives me to pick up a book. (What leads me to finish them is usually more organic, but that’s besides the point.)
Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is this: I read – at least partly – because I want to impress other people. I admit it. I want to have the fodder to start interesting conversations with interesting people; and so I try to buy into the game by reading books that supposedly fit the bill. A lot of the time this works out, as the books end up being interesting and immersive, but some of the time it leads to self-doubt. You start reading something that doesn’t make sense or isn’t congruent with the way you’ve experienced the world, and instead of doubting the book you doubt yourself. “This is a brilliant book”, you internally reinforce, ignoring the fact that you originally bought it based on admittedly shallow marketing.
All of that being said, I’d like to think that I’m not so malleable that this process affects me terribly often or, when it does, to the point where I’m changing the entire basis for how I define myself. Also, there are a number of times where this process has lead me to books which have amplified my opinions or introduced to me entirely new and interesting ideas. And lastly, I’ve read a number of books which have been recommended from reputable sources and introduced to me through meaningful influence, and so a little suspension-of-disbelief can pay off.
But regardless, in the moments that follow putting the book down, when it’s time to talk about a book, a lot of that integrity goes out the window. When trying to remain approachable, attractive, and relevant, you don’t want to look stupid, so you bolster small talk with the same vanity that originally brought you to the book, except this time it’s reinforced by the content you’ve actually read (for better or worse depending on which comes first – the substance or the glitter).
When pushed for depth, though, I tend to revert back to my own experience and try to stay as elegant and real as possible. It’s as if insisting on the need for thought forces me to combat the instinct to be ostentatious. The pressure to present evidence reminds me what books are really about – namely, imparting ideas and emotion – and forces me to look at examples of the book’s accomplishments. I’d like to think that this ability is my saving grace in light of the above described problem.
Today I walked into a coffee shop by my house, ordered, sat down and started reading Infinite Jest. An hour and a half later and I had made it about 30 pages in. The book is dense, but I told myself, “so far, so good”.
However, I remember specifically wincing at one character saying, “The integrity of my sleep has been forever compromised, sir”. I thought, even if you’re trying to characterize an elitist academic, no one would be disconnected enough to say something like that in real life. But, I told myself, “This is an acclaimed book by a proclaimed genius!” and moved on. Every fifteen minutes or so, I’d take a break, remove the white-nosie playing headphones from my ears, and stretch, silently and inconspicuously hoping that someone would ask how I’d liked the book so far. No one did. So after reading for a while, I went to order another drink, prepared to walk home.
And in doing so, the guy behind the counter asks me how I liked the book so far. He had read it.
Keep in mind, at the time I was wearing expensive leather shoes and a button down shirt from an upscale chain store. He’s wearing an over-sized, stained t-shirt and a beanie.
I tell him I’ve only read 30 pages or so, and that I don’t really have an opinion yet other than that it’s dense and really descriptive. I ask him for his thoughts, and he comes back with this gem:
“Honestly, I think it’s soul food for the pretentious.”
I looked up and down at myself; reflected on the facts that (1) I had been silently swallowing some of what was identifiably nonsense from the book, (2) had been hoping people would talk to me based solely on the fact that I was reading that nonsense, and (3) dressed up for the occasion; and then I proceeded to absolutely lose my shit.
It was perfect.
I still intend on reading the book, and it’s definitely a push to call it, or any book, nonsense after only reading a tiny fraction; but in the meantime, any attempt at brainwashing myself, for the sake of appealing to my mental image of what constitutes high-brow, has been sufficiently diffused.
Thank you coffee-shop-dude. You’re a fucking superhero.